i am a public school parent and i won’t back down (sorry maggie!)

Last night I went to a media screening of the new film Won’t Back Down, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis with Holly Hunter.

I’ll get right to the point, y’all.

I love you anyway, Maggie!

Here are some things that are good about this film:

The protagonists are charming and believable. (With the exception of the obligatory love-interest male teacher who was allegedly from Texas yet had a NY accent. Not believable.)

The story centers around two mothers who are both in challenging situations and who are willing to risk it all to help their children have a better life. I get that. I understood the characters’ motivations and I rooted for them to succeed.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is her usual adorable, dimply-cheeked self as the working-class single mom with the heart of gold. She fights the good fight to help her dyslexic daughter. Maggie is scrappy and charming and the character is apparently so poor that she can’t afford shirts big enough to cover her cute little belly button. She also manages to keep her clothes on for the entire movie–which probably falls more into the category of things that are less good about this film now that I think about it.

Viola Davis portrays a depressed public school teacher and a parent facing her own demons. She is terrific in this role, and I enjoyed seeing the grace and dignity that we have come to expect from this talented actor. She delivers an earnest scoop of hope to a bummer public school, and, yes, she also corners the market on the whole heart-of-gold thing.

Holly Hunter is a jaded union leader. Did I mention that under her tough exterior she has a heart of gold?

I love the actors. I love the acting. (Minus the dude who couldn’t fake a Texas accent to save his life.) This is your typical feel-good, uplifting story about a plucky band of misfits who work their asses off and make positive changes in the lives of children.

Now, (deep breath), here are some things that are not good about this film:

The plucky band of misfits inflict their positive change by invoking the “Parent Trigger Law,” which allows parents to take over failing public schools and turn them into charter schools. They essentially bust up the teachers union and corporatize a public institution. The film hits you in the face (and slaps you on the back of the head and punches you in the gut and kicks you in the ass really, really hard with a boot) with vehement anti-public school propaganda.

As a public school advocate and self-avowed annoying PTA lady, I had to pause several times during the film to pick my jaw up off the ground in disbelief. I saw this film the evening before helping to launch a major fundraising campaign at my children’s PUBLIC school. I saw this film after spending a day emailing and tweeting around with other PUBLIC school volunteers about ways to get California parents to vote in favor of PUBLIC education this November.

I saw this film with an open mind and what I saw shocked me.

The political agenda of Won’t Back Down is as naked and laid-out as Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary: Public schools are terrible. The only way to make them better is to take them over and turn them into charter schools. Oh and teachers unions are evil, greedy, spawn-of-Voldemort’s-demon-seed bastards. The end.

I watched scene after scene of tacky, cheating, cruel, lying, selfish teachers in the union. I watched a rally where the pro-charter school advocates wore green (representing growth and hope in case you went to public school and don’t get symbolism) and the pro-public school advocates wore red (the color of blood and Satan, of course).

I watched the school go from drab to fab, as grey and brown clothing and classrooms magically transformed into double-rainbows drenched in sunshine and Skittles. This was only after the poor children were released from the throat-crushing death grip of the Darth Vader teachers union.

My children’s PUBLIC school (which is awesome by the way) was on the district closure list a few years ago. And what did the parents do? Did they try to take over the school and turn it into a charter school and force out all the teachers who stayed with the union? No, silly.

They wrote a grant and built a new playground. They created a tutoring program. They started creative and aggressive fundraising programs like DogFest to help bridge the gap between public school funding and unmet public school needs. They volunteered in classrooms and on the playground and in the lunchroom. They went to PTA meetings and School Site Council meetings. They started a parent Coffee Klatch to create community. They were a plucky band of misfits, by golly!

Some even went as far as forming legislative advocacy organizations to make a difference in the lives of children at the state and national level.

I’m not anti-charter school. I’m not anti-private school. I’m not anti-anything. But this movie distilled a complicated issue into simplistic, manipulative platitudes to the point that the conspiracy theorist in me wondered who the hell bankrolled the entire thing.

So….a friend of mine helped me do a little research and we came up with some nifty insights. Such as the fact that this film is funded by Walden Media, which is owned by  Philip Anschutz, a right wing leader whose foundation has campaigned against such things as same-sex marriage and single parents. He is also part of the conservative movement that promotes school “choice” and privatization and corporatization of public schools. This film is also produced by Rupert Murdoch of Fox News fame.

Ah hah! The plucky band of misfits has quite the corporate backer!

I’m not saying don’t see this movie. Go right ahead. But be ready to have an informed conversation after the credits roll. And try to focus on Maggie’s dimples if you get too angry. They are just adorable!

18 thoughts on “i am a public school parent and i won’t back down (sorry maggie!)

  1. You’re my hero! Great analysis. I work in the public schools as a speech-language pathologist and I can honestly say I have never seen a group of people give as much of their time, their OWN money, and their energy as the teachers I have met. The demonization of teachers and the public school system in this country is nothing short of tragic. Movies like this are just fanning the flames. I am still recovering from all the B.S. from that other movie, the one by Elisabeth Shue’s husband. Sheesh.

  2. I am pro-union, pro-teacher, pro-public school, pro-Maggie Gyllenhaal and I came out of the movie still pro on all counts. It didn’t make me think any less of the public school system, which I whole-heartedly support and it didn’t make me think any less of teachers who are in the union and teach in public schools (I also whole-heartedly support them). I also didn’t come out of it feeling like charter schools are the answer. I appreciated it on a socio-economic level tremendously because I grew up “poor” (financially challenged, but rich in every other way) and got a great public school education, my brother not so much (didn’t make it through high school). This movie touched me because it touched on poverty and I’m sorry, but everything is harder when you are poor and trying to raise a child in a neighborhood with a public school that isn’t doing well. Being an involved PTA parent when you are a single mother supporting your children in a school full of people in the same socio-economic conditions as you are is totally different than being a parent who although not rich still has the ability, knowledge, and time to be involved. I think we bring our own perspectives wherever we go. Anyway I could go on and on adding English being a second language for parents, cultural issues, and what-not, none of which this movie touched on, but I don’t think a single Hollywood movie could possibly touch on all those issues. It’s a movie, not a documentary. Does it have a perspective and slant?Sure. Is it over-simplified? Of course. The politics of those that funded it are clear, but keep in mind that they are also in it to make money. Rupert Murdoch makes money any way he can. He sells entertainment, clothing, and snark to Urban Hipsters that politically would have nothing on common with him, but money is money…I digress.

    Not having anything to do with the movie…It was a treat to meet you and I’m so glad I came over to check out your blog. Love your writing.

  3. I’ve been invited to be a Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD Ambassador just like Robin Dutton-Cookston is in San Francisco. “Texans for Public Schools” realize there is big money behind the mis-information fed to the press for the very reason of undermining public support for public schools. The truth about public school success is much brighter than media lead one to believe. Robin and Jeff’s experience of parents helping school turn around is met in equal measure by school districts doing everything they can to improve student learning against huge social and cultural obstacles. Enjoy the movie. Just remember: it’s fiction.

  4. As a public school teacher, I thank you for seeing through the antics of those mean and nasty people who want to privatize education in order to make a profit off of it! You are absolutely right that it is parental involvement that is key in turning around failing schools- and anyone that knows anything about education knows that poverty is the number one determinant of whether a school succeeds or fails, not teachers. Teachers who work in failing schools are heroes who deserve to be praised, not the greedy, lazy folks who you describe in this movie. Teaching is hard work that pays little, so greedy, lazy folks don’t tend to gravitate towards education… methinks you find more of those types in investment banking. Anyways, THANKS, Robin, for writing such a well-written, entertaining and thoughtful piece. I will definitively share it with my fellow teachers!

  5. Hmmm … has anyone ever made a movie about a charter school that failed? That happens more often than one might guess. But no one would come out of that movie feeling good about themselves, though, so … I guess that’s why I haven’t seen one like that.

    It’s unfortunate that the majority of stories we tell ourselves are about the exception to the rule. It leads people to believe that the exception *is* the rule — that every band of misfits can take over a school and magically it will become better. I’m not anti-charter school either. I’ve just seen as many of them fail as I’ve seen succeed.

    The real magic comes from individuals — not just parents but everyone in the community — investing their time, efforts, and resources to support the school’s efforts and to make it better, safer, or whatever the need is. That’s what “community” means: we’re all in this together.

  6. Just read your blog for the first time today. What a pleasure! You write well, and your critique of the film was fair and balanced. (Shall we take that expression back from its abuse by Fox News?) I am curious what public school in SF you have worked to make better. I have the same aspiration, once I have a child that’s school age. I do think, however, that the teachers unions should become partners, not obstructionists, in the necessary reform of public schooling. I have seen many excellent teachers, but the teacher unions seem to spend their time and money protecting the worst teachers. I do not see the teachers unions as advocates for school reform. And I don’t see them as advocates for students.

  7. Great piece! With your permission, I will link to it on our site! We are Parents United for Public Schools–a statewide grassroots Minnesota parent initiative, for ten years advocating for great public schools! great to meet you!!

    1. hi Mary! yes, thank you. please link back to The Foggiest Idea and indicate that the essay was originally posted here!

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